Part 3, Waking from a Stupor on a Spring Day (春日醉起言志) Li Bai

Touched by the beauty of the bird’s song, I sigh,
Turning to my wine, I pour
Awaiting the moon with a grand song, I sing
Singing to the end, unmoved

Li Bai, Waking from a Stupor on a Spring Day, third and final verse

Life, a story in three acts

Is this the way life ends, with a song, then silence?

In part one we find our poet lying in a drunken stupor outside the palace door. Morning dawns, he awakes clutching a porch column, to see the beauty of the garden flowers. In part two, he hears the song of a warbler and is entranced. Poets like prostitutes sing and dance when the moon is out, but what does it mean?

In part three, we conclude.

Touched by the beauty of the bird’s song, he turns to his wine and drinks. Awaiting the evening and moon, he sings a great song, until the end, emptied of sentiment, he remains unmoved.

Let this be a poem lesson. Drinking all night will put you outside with what’s left of your wine, a song, and then, nothing.

Hao Ge, 浩歌

Our third verse presages 浩歌 Hao Ge, a poem by the Tang poet Li He (circa. 790–791 – 816–817), who likewise found wine and women irresistible and died at the early age of 26 or 27. Hao Ge, literally means “grand song”, one addressed to the universe. Max Ehrmann’s popular 20th century example “Desiderata” is a comparison that comes to mind.

Li Bai’s life ended, the story is told, when he fell from his boat, alone and drunk, trying to grasp the moon’s reflection in the water.

moon, boat, water, Li Bai

Notes on translation

感 Gǎn, touched, sensing
感之 Gǎn zhī, a sense of it
嘆息 tàn xī, breathe a sigh
酒 Jiǔ, wine, spirits
浩歌 Hao Ge, compound word meaning song of the universe, grand song
歌 ge, sing, song, praise
忘情 wàngqíng, unmoved, lacking sentiment

Chinese and Pinyin

感之欲嘆息 對酒還自傾
浩歌待明月 曲盡已忘情

Gǎn zhī yù tànxí duì jiǔ hái zì qīng
hào gē dài míngyuè qū jìn yǐ wàngqíng


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Part 2, Waking from a Stupor on a Spring Day (春日醉起言志) Li Bai

Yesterday, we left super-poet Li Bai alone on the porch, drunk, clutching a column, lying in a stupor after a night of revelry and wine. Morning breaks and he comes to his senses, or does he?

Yesterday’s verse

a yellow leaf warbler

Coming to my sense, I see the courtyard
In the midst of the flowers a bird sings
Is it time to ask this question,
In Spring, why does the warbler sing to the breeze?

Li Bai

Words matter

Li Bai, if words matter, and I am told they do, you are playing with us like a musician plays a zither, a sound may mean many things.  Imagine Li Bai plopped outside the door as morning comes, pear blossoms are dancing in the wind, a warbler sings.

What does he think?

Poets, like brightly colored prostitutes and whores, ply their trade. They dance and sing, and when the morning comes they rest in bed. Still, a lonely warbler sings, to whom and what?

Yesterday is far away, in fact its gone. Li Bai, our super-star, once the darling of the Imperial court, finds himself on the outside, staring in, singing to the breeze, surrounded by the flowers.

Notes on translation

庭, ting, courtyard
鸣, ming, cry or sing
春风 chūn fēng, as compound word, spring wind; singularly, in spring, the wind
时, shi, the season, or time; a homophone for poem or verse, 诗
莺, ying, a warbler, also possibly a golden oriole
柳莺, liǔyīng, willow warbler; leaf warbler, a colorful bird with yellow markings that nests in spring; literally a prostitute.

Chinese and pinyin

觉来眄庭, 一鸟花间鸣
借问此何时, 春风语流莺

Jué lái miǎn tíng, yī niǎo huā jiān míng
jièwèn cǐ hé shí, chūnfēng yǔ liú yīng


Spring Morning 春晓 – Meng Haoran

Spring, I am half asleep and do not feel the dawn
But everywhere black birds are crying
Last night I heard the howling wind and rain
Do you know how many blossoms fell?

Spring Morning – Meng Haoran
Spring Morning, Birds Singing on a branch with Cherry Blossoms
Spring Morning, Birds Singing

Previously translated about 2 years ago. A favorite poem with children the world over. Worth a revisit.

Thoughts on Meng’s Spring Morning

Good poetry, like all good art, should evoke an emotion as this one does.

A lovely word picture, not of what one see, but what one feels. It was written by Meng Haoran (circa 689–740) during his time at a temple retreat on Lumen Mountain in Hubei Province. The temple is located a short distance southeast of the city where Meng was born and died, Xiangyang.

Imagines a day in early spring 春, the trees full of blossoms. A child lies in bed, the covers pulled over his or her head. Unable to sleep during the night because of the wind, thunder, and rain, our child is half awake.

Everywhere 处 处 birds are crying 啼. Not singing, but crying, crowing, weeping. Literally, cawing, like a crow. Why the sorrow?

花落知多少, Huā luò zhī duōshǎo?

How many blossoms fell?

Read French translation

春晓

春眠不觉晓
处处闻啼鸟
夜来风雨声
花落知多少

Chūn xiǎo

Chūn mián bù jué xiǎo,
chù chù wén tí niǎo.
Yè lái fēng yǔ shēng,
huā luò zhī duō shǎo

At Wang Changling’s Retreat – Chang Jian

Here, beside a lake clear and deep
You live amidst clouds
Where softly through pine trees, the moon arrives
To become your pure-hearted friend.
Shaded by flowery blossoms underneath a thatch roof hut you rest
Calmed by herbs that flourish in their bed of moss
Let me thank you for the time
On Xishan mountain with phoenixes and cranes.

What the poem is about

Forgive me for feeling a bit of personal joy at the pure escapism of Chang Jian’s poem.

Chang takes us to Wang Changlin’s retreat beside a lake on Xishan Mountain (山西) . Unfortunately for the cartographer, Xishan Mountain may refer to several locations in China, and, as the lake is unidentified, we are left to wonder where exactly we are.

Wang Changling

Wang Changling, whose retreat Chang Jian is visiting, was a well-known poet who held several important imperial postings. It is said that Wang was originally from Shanxi Province (山西), and, therefore, one wonders if this is the Western Mountain Chang Jian refers to.

Forgive me, it is not the place but the feeling that matters. A lake clear and deep, a thatched hut high in the mountains, shaded by flowering trees and clouds during the day, and a moon that comes in the night, indeed a pure-hearted friend.

The phoenix and crane (鸞鶴)

Wife and husband, a happy marriage. Those from a Western culture may not be familiar with the poem’s last line reference to phoenixes and cranes.

In China, the phoenix does not refer to the bird reincarnating from the ashes. Rather, the phoenix represents a female figure and the god of the winds, joy and peace. The crane represents the male figure, along with longevity and wisdom, flying high on the wind.

Afterword

Wang Changling’s peaceful sojourn to his retreat in Xishan Mountain comes to an end with the An Lushan Rebellion that began in 755. He died within a year of the outbreak of the troubles and Chang Jian’s fate is unknown.

Chinese

清溪深不測
隱處唯孤雲
松際露微月
清光猶為君

茅亭宿花影
藥院滋苔紋
余亦謝時去
西山鸞鶴群

Pinyin

Qīng xī shēn bùcè
yǐn chù wéi gūyún
sōng jì lù wēi yuè
qīngguāng yóu wèi jūn

máo tíng sù huāyǐng
yào yuàn zī tái wén
yú yì xiè shí qù
xīshān luán hè qún

My Gift to Wanglun – Li Bai

My Gift to Wanglun

As I, Li Bai, board the boat about to leave
Ashore, I hear the sound of song and dance
Though a thousand feet deep, Peach Blossom Spring may be,
It compares not to Wang’s kinship to me.

china ferry boat willow tree lake

Original Chinese Characters

赠汪伦

李白乘舟将欲行
忽闻岸上踏歌声
桃花潭水深千尺
不及汪伦送我行

Pinyin

lǐ bái chéng zhōu jiāngyù xíng
hū wén ànshàng tà gēshēng
táohuātán shuǐshēn qiān chǐ
bùjí wānglún sòng wǒ xíng

China lake willow tree, mountains in the distance

Peach Blossom Spring

Li Bai’s reference to Peach Blossom Spring (桃花潭, Táohuātán) draws on an earlier legend of The Peach Blossom Land, written by Tao Yuanming (circa 421 AD).

The story is about the chance discovery of a perfect utopia where people live in harmony with nature, unaware of the outside world for centuries. A fisherman accidentally stumbles on the beautiful spot, stays for a week, and then leaves marking the way with signs. All attempts to rediscover this Shangri-la are futile.

Wang Lun

Who, pray tell, is the friend Wang Lun (汪伦)?

My guess is Wang Wei, a close colleague with whom he shared many nights of revelry. The Chinese character 伦, Lun in Pinyin, translates to relationship, kinship, or peer. Thus, the phrase is my peer, my kin, my friend Wang.

There is an often repeated story that Li Bai, who was fond of drinking to exess and talking to the moon, drowned after falling from his boat in the Yangtze River when he tried to embrace a reflection of the moon in the water.

Wang Wei’s Farewell to Li Bai

Wang Wei , The Farewell (ca. 750 CE)

Dismounting, I offer my friend a cup of wine,
I ask what place he is headed to.
He says he has not achieved his aims,
Is retiring to the southern hills.
Now go, and ask me nothing more,
White clouds will drift on for all time.


Zhang Jiuling – Thoughts I

high flying goose zhang jiuling thoughts

How the mighty have fallen

Zhang Jiuling experienced a fall from power. Once high counselor to the Emperor Xuanzong, possessing the honorific title of Count Wenxian of Shixing, he found himself the subject of palace intrigue, and, by 737, demoted and sent to distant Jingzhou (荆州), on the banks of the Yangtze River, in Hubei, China.

Zhang died three years later, but not before giving us his thoughts on his fall from his lofty perch.

Thoughts, First of Four
A lonely swan comes from the sea
Not daring to land on lake or pond
Looking aside, he spies a pair of kingfishers
Nesting on a three-pearled tree
Bravely resting at the tree’s summit
Have they no fear of slingshots?
Beautiful clothes invite pointing fingers
And, the high and wise face an evil god
For what is there for hunters to admire?

Original Chinese Characters

感遇四首之一

孤鴻海上來
池潢不敢顧
側見雙翠鳥
巢在三珠樹
矯矯珍木巔
得無金丸懼
美服患人指
高明逼神惡
弋者何所慕

Pinyin

Gǎn yù sì shǒu zhī yī

gū hónghǎi shànglái
chí huáng bù gǎn gù
cè jiàn shuāng cuì niǎo
cháo zài sān zhūshù
jiǎo jiǎo zhēn mù diān
dé wú jīnwán jù
měi fú huàn rén zhǐ
gāomíng bī shén è
yì zhě hé suǒ mù

Thoughts on Thoughts by Zhang Jiuling

Philosophers and poets imagine themselves as solitary swans (孤 鴻) flying high above the earth. They come from far away places, (海上來, coming from the sea) to serve the emperor. (Zhang himself was born in Guangdong, South China province, on the coast of the South China Sea.)

Having come from such a great body of water, how can the swan satisfy himself with a mere lake or pond?

The brightly colored kingfisher is common in China. Its colorful plumage makes it a popular subject of paintings, no doubt, looked at and admired greatly by an adoring public. The Three Pearl Tree (三珠樹) is a specific reference beyond my ability to identify. If I had to make an educated guess, it would be the Chinese Pearl-Bloom Tree with its beautiful white flowers.

The world is possessed of both good spirits and bad spirits. It is the bad spirits who admire (慕, admire, long for, desire) and hunt the high and the mighty (高明, literally those who are high and wise, clear-sighted). It is tempting to say “high and mighty” but that doesn’t quite express Zhang’s belief that one’s highest duty to the emperor is to behonest.

Note. A link to the Chinese Pearl-Blossom Tree.

Zhang Jiuling

Zhang Jiuling, (張九齡); Count Wenxian of Shixing (始興文獻伯), A Man of Much Substance (博物)

To Minister Zhang While Gazing at Lake Dongting

Note. Minister Zhang Jiuling held several important posts under Emperor Xuanzong, including head of the imperial library, minister of public works, and commandant of various prefectures. The ancient reader of this poem, acquainted with the history of the imperial court, would know that Minister Zhang fell from favor with the emperor and was dismissed.

Thus, a brilliant master like Zhang could not always count on a life of ease.

Zhang was himself a noted poet. Five of his poems are included in the anthology of Three Hundred Tang Poems. See for instance Orchid and Orange I.

To Minister Zhang while gazing at Lake Dongting 

The lake is full in the eighth moon,
The water blends with the sky
The march mist rises in a cloud-like dream,
While waves pound against Yueyang’s walls
Alas, I have no boat with which to cross.
A brilliant master is shamed with a life of ease
Still I sit and watch an angler release his hook,
And envy those the fish they catch.

fog and mist and rolling waves

Notes on the Meng Haoran’s translation; or what is wisdom to a hungry sage?

August is a rainy month in most of China. Meng does not mention this, but it is also the time of the Mid-Autumn Festival.

Yueyang (岳陽) is both a city and a prefecture located in Hunan province on the eastern shore of the Yangtze River bordering Dongting Lake in the south. Dongting Lake is a shallow flood basin whose size depends on the time of year. Yueyang Tower is a well known site, standing at the west gate of the Yueyang city wall, looking down at Dongting Lake, and linking the Yangtze River to the north with the Xiangjiang River to the south.

Line six, 聖明, may be translated as enlightened sage, august wisdom, and brilliant master, this last choice probably applies to Minister Zhang, the person Meng is addressing. Meng wrote at least three other poems in which the name Zhang appears. From the poem, To Zhang, Climbing Orchid Mountain on an Autumn Day, and other poems, we may conclude they shared fish and a drink or two.

Original Chinese and Pinyin

望洞庭湖贈張丞相

孟浩然

八月湖水平
涵虛混太清
氣蒸雲夢澤
波撼岳陽
欲濟無舟楫
端居恥聖明
坐觀垂釣者
徒有羨魚情

Wàng dòngtíng hú zèng zhāng chéngxiàng

Mèng Hàorán

bā yuè hú shuǐpíng
hán xū hùn tài qīng
qì zhēng yún mèng zé
bō hàn yuèyáng chéng
yù jì wú zhōují
duān jū chǐ shèngmíng
zuò guān chuídiào zhě
tú yǒu xiàn yú qíng

Other translations

I am intrigued by the wide variation in translations of Tang poetry. Here is a translation for comparison. There are others.

An English translation by E. C. Chang

lake china

Bamboo House – Wang Wei

Bamboo House

In quiet bamboo, I sit alone
Plucking the zither, repeating its song.
In the forest deep, quite unknown
The bright moon shines and comes

Original Chinese characters

竹 里 館
獨 坐 幽 篁 裡
彈 琴 復 長 嘯
深 林 人 不 知
明 月 來 相 照

Pinyin

Zhú lǐ guǎn
dú zuò yōu huáng lǐ
tán qín fù cháng xiào
shēn lín rén bù zhī
míng yuè lái xiāng zhào

Wang Wei

Wang Wei was and is highly regarded as poet, painter and musician.

The 琴 referred to in line two is a Chinese zither, a stringed instrument that is plucked. The English/Chinese translation is more correctly “guzheng”.

Late in life, Wang became a devout Buddhist. His poems and this one in particular refer to emptiness and the lessons of silence. The poem was composed during the An Lushan Rebellion, when Wang’s fortunes with the Imperial Court fell and rose again. The poem was likely composed at his family estate near the Wang River in Shaanxi province.

The challenge with translation is to try and keep both the cadence and meaning of the poem intact. Wang composed his poem in four lines of five characters.

wang wei Scenery of Snow and Creek

Wang Wei, Scenery of Snow and Creek, wikiart

French translation

Seul dans le bambou tranquille, je suis assis
Tapoter de la cithare, répéter sa chanson
Dans la forêt profonde, tout à fait inconnu
Brille la lune brillante, va et vient

Alternate translation

Sitting alone, in the hush of the bamboo
I strum my zither, and whistle a tune
Deep in the woods, no one can hear
Still, the bright moon comes to shine on me

Sitting Alone on Jingtingshan – Li Bai

In the distance, a flock of birds flying high
Above, a lonely cloud drifts idly by
Fondly looking (相看) at each other, neither one growing tired,
And all there is, is Jingtingshan.

jingting mountain detail

Beauty is its own reward

Have we not all experienced the glory of nature, a mesmerizing view of the Grand Canyon, the spectacular Yosemite, a moment when the breath is taken away watching Mt. Hood or Mt. Bachelor?

The world contains many such splendid spots.

Li Bai and Jingting

Li Bai made many trips to Jingting Mountain in Anhui Province, west of Shanghai. The area is known for its low-hanging clouds, ancient granite rocks, and twisted pines that have been the subject of many painters and poets. In this poem, Li Bai expresses the opinion that the beauty of Jingtingshan (敬亭山) would never bore.

The title, 獨坐敬亭山, translates as sitting alone on Jingting Mountain. Jingting (敬亭) is a compound and place name. 山 (shan) is the Chinese character for mountain. I prefer Jingtingshan rather than Jingting Mountain, though it appears in translations both ways. Within the poem I inserted the original characters 相看, another compound word which expresses the sentiment of gazing or looking at each other. I added the adverb fondly, but that is pure fancy.

This poem came late in Li Bai’s career when he was on the wrong side of the political fence. Sentenced to death for treason, then reprieved and exiled, Li Bai was on his way down the Yangtze when he stopped to visit for the final time Jingtingshan (Jingting mountain). Fortunately, for Li Bai, his uncle Li Yangbing was governor of Anhui province and so could provide him refuge.

Death of Li Bai

I imagine that Li Bai saw himself in the poem as the lonely cloud drifting off while the world, represented by the flock of birds, moved on.

In fact, Li Bai was ill and near death when he wrote this poem. Legend has it that Li Bai drowned in the Yangtze River after falling from his boat when he tried to embrace the moon’s reflection.

 

Original Chinese characters

獨坐敬亭山

衆鳥高飛盡
孤雲獨去閒
相看兩不厭
只有敬亭山

Pinyin and rhyme scheme

Zhòng niǎo gāofēi jǐn
gūyún dú qù xián
xiāng kàn liǎng bùyàn
zhǐyǒu jìngtíng shān

Jingting Mountain in autumn, 1671, by Shitao, Musée Guimet, Paris

jingtingshan

River Snow

I confess to being fascinated by the imagery in Liu Zongyuan poem River Snow (elsewhere I and others have used the translation Sn0w Covered River, but now I question its accuracy).

river-snow-crop

river snow

 

A thousand mountains and not a bird to be seen. The wintry landscape is smooth and pristine. And there in a boat on a snow-covered river sits a lonely fisherman clad in a cape of sea-grass wearing a bamboo hat.

Liu Zongyuan (773 – 819) lived in China towards the end of the Tang Dynasty. China was in the midst of rebellion and invasion, famine and flooding. The Tang dynasty, weakened by these calamities, would however go on, ending almost a century later in 907 AD. Surely, Liu had a foretaste of the end and a sense of the fragility of life. This “existentialist” poem more than hints at man’s isolation in the world and his struggles to survive against all that nature can throw at him.

Liu’s title is 江雪, literally River Snow.

Most translations are River Snow or Snow Covered River. There is a third possibility. River snow like lake effect snow is a specific atmospheric condition. One observes water vapor frozen into ice crystals and falling in light white flakes or lying on the ground in a thin white layer. The effect is quite ethereal and poetic and untranslatable.

That said, here I go again at translating Liu’s poem.

A thousand mountains, and not a sign of a bird in flight
On the wintry-white land, not a footprint in sight
But here on a frozen river, in a boat
Clad in my cape of sea-grass and bamboo hat
I sit and fish
Alone

Yes, I have translated Liu’s characters differently elsewhere. After all, the Chinese characters and the English words they represent are nothing more than images of the mind. We do not see words when we look at the world, we see images. Liu understood this. His setting is sparse – a thousand mountains covered in snow, not a single bird, not a trace of mankind but for this solitary fisherman, alone in his boat. Is the river snow-covered or frozen? And does it matter? Liu thought it important to clothe our fisherman only in cape of sea-grass and a bamboo hat. This implies that our fisherman is the lowliest of the low.

We are observers of this scene, unable to penetrate his thoughts, and yet, somehow we know.

Notes.

Elsewhere I have concluded that 千山, the Thousand Mountains, Liu refers to in the first line is Qianshan National Park in Liaoning Province, China.